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Europe: A Bastion of Moderate and Temperate Speech? No Thanks

18/04/2016 12:52

This week, we've seen an outdated paragraph of the German criminal code dusted off and referenced in a call to prosecute a comedian for offending the Turkish President. As Erdoğan continues his mission to silence critics, Angela Merkel has taken the path of mollycoddling him with soft words and comforting apologies for any upset caused and has agreed that a prosecution should go ahead.

In ARTICLE 19 we often find ourselves talking about offence. It's tricky to measure and to codify. Put simply, in our view, according to international law offence should never be the basis for criminal prosecutions.

However, for Jan Böhmermann the German comedian at the centre of the current row, it's more than tricky. He faces three years imprisonment for insulting a Head of State, under paragraph 103 of the German Criminal Code. While Böhmermann may have grown in popularity over recent years for his caustic, satirical approach to entertainment, he isn't the only example of a growing backlash against expression through the use of outdated and nonsensical laws on the European statute books.

In Spain, less than a decade ago, a satirical take on the royal family and a recent measure to give €2500 to the parents of every new-born was deemed too offensive and pulled off the shelves: a literal cry of 'Stop press!' to prevent offending privileged, influential, and powerful public figures in the twenty-first century.

In the UK, the 'Twitter joke trial', demonstrated a farcical misunderstanding of how people use social media and how the State should respond.

And only a few years ago in Poland, pop-singer Doda was prosecuted under blasphemy laws that carry a prison sentence of up to two years. Her offensive offence? A flippant remark on the believability of the bible and the suggestion it was written by people who "drank too much wine."

The list of silly prosecutions could also include ludicrous charges against activists in Azerbaijan, prosecutions of teenagers for Twitter jokes in Turkey, and blasphemy charges for Facebook pages in Greece.

We are moving into an ever more challenging era for free expression in Europe. State of emergency, anti-extremism, and mass surveillance laws threaten to further chill the already cool free speech on the continent. Now is the time to be vocal in our defence of offence.

A wave of regressive legislation threatens to sweep across Europe and this should concern each and every one of us. As states become increasingly unsure how to tackle views which are deemed extremist, we are witnessing knee-jerk reactions and ill-thought out legislation across the continent.

In the UK a new spying law, the Investigatory Powers Bill, will make the British population amongst the most spied upon in the world and give police the power to hack phones, televisions, and messaging apps without suspicion.

France remains under a state of emergency, allowing the authorities wide-ranging powers that restrict fundamental liberté, erode any sense of fraternité, and deeply exacerbate already existing inegalité. The revolution may be televised, but it is the public that are being watched. We are being told that we are not to be trusted, but that we should trust the state with ever more unchecked power over our private lives. We've got the balance wrong.

States make misplaced arguments about countering violent extremism, tackling terrorism, or challenging hate speech: these increasingly authoritarian powers provide shaky foundations for democracy, freedom of expression and a more tolerant and harmonious society. Instead states should be looking to promote positive speech and encourage a diversity of views, even when those views might offend or upset.

Satire is often central to political expression and dissent. It's a part of our political and cultural landscape that often brings complex issues into public consciousness and raises awareness of the crucial questions of our time.

European states need to take a lead and scrap these outdated criminal insult, blasphemy, and offence laws. If Europe is going to continue a tradition of revolutionary thinkers and avant-garde artists, expression in all its forms must be encouraged. Offence is not enough to warrant being silenced.

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